ATLANTA — Game-changer.
That’s what we witnessed Monday morning at Holy Spirit Prep. A game-changer for Georgia basketball.
And that’s not me talking. That’s from some of the folks who were in the Commons Building of this sprawling private school in the north Buckhead area of our fair city to hear the college basketball announcement of Anthony “Ant Man” Edwards. Most of them knew what the news was going to be, they just wanted to see it and hear it for themselves.
D.A. Layne was among those observers. Layne played guard for the Bulldogs from 1998-2001. He was actually the first person to utter those two hyphenated words to me on Monday, “game-changer.” We talked in the final minutes leading up to Edwards’ 9 a.m., live-broadcast announcement before a crowd of the reporters and the entire student body of this Catholic school suburbs.
Layne obviously already knew what was about to take place and he couldn’t have been more thrilled about it. Shortly after Edwards made if official he is going to sign with the Georgia Bulldogs, unzipped his black jacket In The Layne basketball camps jacket to reveal a gray UGA hoodie with the word “Bulldogs” emblazoned across the front. And he was beaming.
“This is game-changer right here,” he said excitedly. “I’m missing work for this. Had to call in late. I’m telling you, I’ve been waiting on this for a long time. I can’t tell you how happy I am.”
He didn’t have to. It was all over his face.
Yes, Layne was happy his alma mater had just secured the commitment of the No. 1 or 2 college basketball prospect in the country, depending on which recruiting site to which one subscribes. But it represented more than that to him. To Layne, it’s a dam breaking, a wall falling down, a bridge being built, a tunnel being constructed. Choose your metaphor.
I didn’t realize until Layne told me and I haven’t independently verified it, but he says he was the last basketball player out of Wheeler High School to have signed on with the Bulldogs. If you know anything about basketball, college or pro, you might’ve heard that more than a few great players have come out of Wheeler. E.J. Montgomery is the latest you might know. The 6-foot-10, 5-star forward is currently a freshman at Kentucky. Or maybe Jaylen Brown. He’s a pro now with the Boston Celtics but he few years ago he was another McDonald’s All-American who signed somewhere other than Georgia (he went to Cal). The list only grows longer and more distinguished from there.
But it’s not really about Wheeler, Layne’s high school alma mater. It’s about AAU basketball. That’s what all those guys play the other nine months while they’re not playing high school hoops. Those are the coaches and the people of influence when it comes to the best of the best playing their games and deciding where they want to go with it. And for the greater part of this century, those guys have been taking their games elsewhere.
Which is not to say some very good players haven’t come to Georgia in the meantime. Kentavious Caldwell-Pope was a Top 10 player who signed with the Bulldogs just a few years back and is now in the NBA. And people forget about such frontline players as Trey Thompkins, Jeremy Price, Travis Leslie and Kenny Gaines. Those guys weren’t chump-change and they played AAU ball. They did UGA proud by suiting up for the Bulldogs.
But convincing the AAU player that’s also a sure-fire pro in short order is the really new ground for the Bulldogs under Tom Crean. Not only was he able to convince Edwards and his family that he can provide the continued development a player of his ilk would need, but he also says he’s willing to deal with the hassle and extra burdens that come with that as well. And there are more than a few. Handling the livelihood of a young man who has already been told he’s going to earn millions from it is not a casual affair. You’ve got to be ever-vigilante and serious and focused about it.
Edwards had the opportunity to go anywhere in the country, including those places where this is standard operating procedure. But he chose to entrust his career to Crean and UGA, and that had a feeling of historical significance on Monday.
“We’re loving it; we’re really going to enjoy this,” said Winfred Jordan, head coach of the Atlanta Xpress AAU team for which Edwards plays year-round. “First of all, I think this is the best situation for Anthony Edwards. I believe that. I think once all of America sees that a kid like him made that decision, it could change Georgia basketball.”
It’s never a small thing when anybody beats Kentucky in anything related to basketball. The same goes for Kansas and North Carolina and Duke and FSU, all of which not only extended offers but put considerable time, effort and resources into Edwards’ recruitment. But it bears reminding that Edwards could have gone to school right down the road from his house to Georgia Tech or Georgia State to satisfy the “close to home” factor that was important to him.
He chose instead to travel east 65 miles to UGA to live out the next chapter of his journey. For that, Crean and assistant coaches Chad Dollar and Amir Abdur-Rahim deserve an enormous amount of credit. Nobody knows that better than Edwards’ high school coach, Ty Anderson, who was a four-year letterman at Georgia Tech.
“They showed up,” Anderson said of Georgia’s coaches. “They’ve been here every time they could. They’ve been to several games, workouts, practices. Wherever I’ve been my advice has always been, ‘go where they recruit you the hardest.’ That’s where they believe in you and where you’re going to get the most love. Georgia recruited Ant really hard.”
Retrospectively, that might’ve been the easy part. Now Crean and the Bulldogs have to follow through on what they’ve sold. And if you haven’t been paying attention, things having been going great during Crean’s 11-month tenure. Georgia just dropped its eighth SEC game in a row and Crean created a mini-controversy by blaming himself for not encouraging more of his players to leave when he took over because they can’t give him what he needs to run his system.
Edwards heard all that, too, and was unfazed.
“I know he’s not like that,” said Edwards, wearing the red Georgia cap and holding his 4-month-old nephew, Jace, after the live-broadcast announcement. “He’s a great guy. He didn’t mean it like that.”
Edwards can’t actually sign with the Bulldogs until the spring period opens on April 17th, but he assured one and all that his recruitment was over and his commitment to Georgia and Crean was unwavering. In the meantime, he said he “a couple of guys in mind” that he wants to convince they should join him in Athens.
That’s the effect Layne has always said getting a player like Edwards to break the Atlanta AAU barrier would have on the program he played for and still loves. Maybe now the Bulldogs will finally sign another player from Wheeler.
“This big, Chip; this is big,” Layne said.
I think so, too.